istening to movie soundtracks should be like splicing the streetlife and its itinerant noise into a mix for your living room. Without the visual accompaniment of the near-accident to match the snarl of horns that follows, you are left to make what you will of those insistent sounds. They are stark and direct, but their simplicity allows a multidimensionality that makes them ideal for your manipulation. Many soundtrack composers aren’t allowed the luxury of restraint. Forced to augment the dramatic potency of a given scene, movie soundtracks often strain the gag reflex; they stretch too far into histrionics to ever stand on their own. Anyone who’s ever been forced to listen to a John Williams soundtrack understands this complaint.
Asked to create a soundtrack for Simon Pummell’s film about the human experience, a project just begging for over-the-top theatricality, Radiohead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood sidesteps any bloated sentimentality with a finespun musical backdrop. Filled with gloomy strings provided by The Emperor Quartet and a mishmash of cut-up electronic beats and tones, Greenwood’s soundtrack has a neo-gothic quality, simultaneously cavernous and regal. His songs drift and flex, but only occasionally do they surge beyond their fly-on-the-wall observance. Unfortunately, this relative subtlety, this lack of urgency and creative demand, is its greatest shortcoming.
“Moon Trills” begins like the warm-up of a string quartet before a sonic scream cuts into a somnolent piano line bearing great similarity to that of “Pyramid Song.” Soft bleeps bubble along with wafting strings and moaning electronics, setting a wanderer’s tone for the album.
This vaporous sensation continues with “Clockwork Tin Soldiers.” With its glass-shard electronic chimes whirring from speaker to speaker, the song seems to submerge itself beneath its own disorienting effects. It swims around you in murky water, as Phantom of the Opera organs stumble through its midpoint into the stomping drums of a distant march.
With the album’s ethereal sensibility now well-established, its two sidesteps into acid jazz, “Splitter” and “Milky Drops from Heaven,” fail to ever instill a compelling dynamic. Their propulsive thrusts never distinguish themselves, and the departures seem unnatural. They are almost recognizable, faint reminders of Blue Note and Columbia recordings long misplaced. With frantic drums and the Live Evil frenzy of Gerald Presencer’s trumpet, they churn and thrash, hurling themselves at the glass like caged animals. Your reflex step is backward, but in the end you remember the barrier and they get close.
“Bode Radio/Glass Light/Broken Hearts” is a three-part song that returns the soundtrack to its strengths. Twitching with glitchtronic percussion and pulsating chimes, a lost tone rises to wipe the slate clean for its humming synths and its strings that sound nicked from one of Schubert’s string quartets. It glides for four minutes, slowly pitching itself back and forth on its own weightless inertia.
Greenwood moves forward on “24 Hour Charleston” by returning to the stunning sounds that should warm the hearts of Radiohead fans. As the backporch guitar and firecracker programming open, Greenwood finally demands your attention. His brother, Colin, provides the bassline’s apocalyptic pounce as the track fades and stutters through its bric-a-brac atmospheric noise. A few tracks may need to be avoided on the way here, but the track marks his arrival at the neo-escapist electronics he performs so expertly with Radiohead.
Ultimately, this is the album’s stumbling point. For most of Bodysong, Greenwood fails to consistently make claims on the listener. As an album, this work is in competition with surrealistic soundscape creators such as Mouse on Mars, Matmos, or even Sigur Ros. Without their senses of trauma and furor or their electroshock chill, it suffers by comparison. The moderation may work beautifully in step with the film, but when the visuals are blinded and the music is forced to create them in a vacuum, Bodysong lacks the necessary bravado to hold your attention on its own.